If you’re a sensitive white American teenage boy or girl, it’s entirely likely that you’ll consider “East of Eden” (Warner Bros., 1955) to be the greatest picture of all time, especially if you’ve got a little yen for James Dean. Then, when you get a little older, if you have any sense, you’ll begin to think different. Happily, for those of us with a little sense, there’s still plenty to like and admire about the picture, but you’ve got to be willing to choke down many things that somehow manage, paradoxically, to be steamed up, boiling over and half-baked — all at the same time. The screen adaptation of John Steinbeck’s elephantine novel has got an almost awesome amount of emotional pull to it. The Central California locations are gorgeous, and look great in CinemaScope (Ted McCord did the cinematography); Leonard Rosenman’s imposing romantic score keeps working your emotions into a lather; the young actors are attractive and achingly sensitive; the old-timers are pros who can bend the baloney any way they like. The only trouble is that it makes no sense at all. But what a swell, emotional ride it is when you’re a teenager! I remember how terrifically it used to get my nuts in a bunch when I was in high school. It’s the motion picture equivalent of Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel,” which is fantastically engrossing when you’re young, but ludicrous once you’ve got a plenitude of rings on your tree.
I continue to like “East of Eden” a lot. In fact, I love it. But I love it for reasons that I seriously doubt were what director Elia Kazan and screenwriter Paul Osborn had in mind. For instance, I love to watch Jo Van Fleet act that jittery kid right off the screen. He’s up to all his usual tics, but Van Fleet shrugs at him, then backs up her truck and proceeds to steal the picture out from under him. When she narrows her eyes and lets the smoke come chuffing through her dragon nostrils, she seems to be saying, “G’ahead and ham it up, kid: won’t do ya no good, though: they ain’t even lookin’ at ya — not s’long as I’m in the frame.” He’s in the foreground, going through his catechism of spasms; she’s sitting still and scowling, smoking her stubby behind her big manly desk with her plum-colored gloves on . . . you can’t take your eyes off her, and you can’t wait to hear what she’ll say next, or how she’s gonna say it. To hear her say “Makes me mad just to think about a rrraannch” gives me a thrill of pleasure that lasts for the next fifteen minutes. (I have a brother who once told me, “She’s not sexy: she’s obscene.” Bingo.)
Jo Van Fleet won the Academy Award for her performance, and boy did she deserve it. (She’s even better in her one short, unforgettable scene as Arletta, Cool Hand Luke’s mother, in 1967, but she wasn’t nominated for that one.) Frank Langella gave her the back of his hand in his mean-spirited book. She may well have been the bitch he claims she was, but all I care about is the quality of her work. You’ll have to go a long way to find her equal.
I heard a story from a friend who, when he was a little kid, knew Marlon Brando: Brando was one of his father’s best friends. Apparently, James Dean once attended a party that Brando was at, and spent the whole evening trying, but failing, to impress him. Before Brando left, he purred: “Young man, I would recommend for you . . . psychoanalysis.” I think of that story just about every second that James Dean’s onscreen. I can’t help thinking that it’s not neurosis that I’m seeing, but hamming. He’s definitely got something, though. I just hope it’s not catching.
The story is essentially a highly steamed up Papa-Drama, loosely based on the Cain and Abel story: well-beloved “good” son Aron (Richard Davalos) versus much-reviled “bad” son Caleb (called “Cal,” James Dean), vying for the love of their stern father, Adam Trask (Raymond Massey, who loathed James Dean), and it all leads up to an extremely emotional happy ending, which happens after the comely, neurotic “bad” son’s Bible-thumping dad suffers a massive stroke, and Julie Harris slips into the old man’s room to deliver an exquisitely modulated Grand Remonstrance, the gist of which is: “Oh, Mr Trask, let Cal do for you, or he’ll never be a man!” It’s astonishing how fine she is in this scene. Julie Harris was hugely admired throughout her long career, and I saw her many times on stage and in pictures, but I never saw her come close again. At any rate, her speech takes its effect, whereupon the old man yields just enough to give the picture a happy ending. And what a sacrifice he makes: now that he’s a helpless, all-but-speechless invalid, he’ll permit his beautiful, no-count son to do for him. He’ll allow the boy to spoon pablum into his pie-hole, and change his diapers, and wait on him hand and foot until that fell arrest without all bail shall carry him away. What tears of joy this used to make me shed!